On Online Speech, Sasse Stands Alone

There was an almost total lack of skepticism of expanding government regulation of online content moderation at yesterday’s Senate hearing with the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook. Almost.

Among Senate Republicans calling for government regulation to ensure less online third-party content is removed, Senate Democrats calling for government regulation to ensure more online third-party content is removed, and two tech CEOs smart enough to know that regulation would act as a barrier to entry for nascent competitors, came a lone voice of (bearded) reason: Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).

Sasse was alone in acknowledging that, while current content moderation is far from perfect, the regulatory cure may well be worse than the disease.

Content moderation at scale is hard because it’s inherently subjective. Barring a free-for-all approach where nothing is ever removed (which would result in a flood of pornographic, violent and fraudulent material on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube), there is no way to be completely objective to everyone’s satisfaction. One man’s bullying is another’s straight talk, one man’s satire is another’s threat, and the same applies to pornography versus art, racism versus humor, etc., etc., etc..

Content moderation is a daunting task for big platforms. And the results are often frustrating for users across the political spectrum. Republicans feel victimized and discriminated against by liberal-leaning tech companies. (The contrarian will note that conservatives dominate on many engagement metrics on social media.)  Democrats feel social media platforms have not done enough to remove what they view as dangerous speech and, in this way, have contributed to the right’s political successes. (Yet, the role of social media in the 2016 election remains up for debate.) Nobody is completely happy all of the time with the content moderation actions of these platforms.

But only Sasse warned that regulatory intervention would likely make matters worse.

That should be the gut reaction of every Senator usually skeptical of bigger government and more regulation, but political motives seem to have clouded some minds. Small-government legislators are familiar with the unintended consequences of regulation. They know that big tech firms will have a seat at the table when regulations are written. That, along with the scale to mitigate the regulatory burden of compliance, will mean these new restrictions will not prove fatal for the already established firms.

The same cannot be said for the next Facebook or Twitter, being hatched in a garage or dorm room right now. The regulatory burden may well prove prohibitive for the next generation of tech innovations and entrepreneurs. Regulating the current market leaders locks them in the lead position by sheltering them from tomorrow’s competition.

And these regulations will surely be used to the advantage of the party in power—something that should give pause to members of both parties.  At the hearing, Sasse observed:

I especially think it’s odd that so many in my party are zealous to do this right now, when you would have an incoming administration of the other party that would be writing the rules and regulations about it.

Somebody hand that man a runza; he’s exactly right. Empowering politicians and bureaucrats to make the rules for content moderation will not lead to the protection of conservative speech. This is likely true in any political situation, but it’s certain with an incoming executive branch from the party that’s been demanding more speech from the right be removed.

In practice, big government will not be the protector of the climate change skeptic, the Christian, the charter school advocate, or the abortion opponent when Democrats are in charge. Similarly, it won’t protect groups on the left when Republicans come back around to controlling executive agencies.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid giving the government powers you wouldn’t want them to have if your opposition party was in charge. If you don’t like Twitter, hop on over to Parler for free and in a matter of moments—or vice versa. You won’t get the same opportunity to exit if the federal government is in charge of what you can or cannot say online.

Online platforms are relatively new and operate on the economic frontier. Things are messy on frontiers, but they usually don’t stay that way forever. The market will sort out consumers’ preferences faster and more inclusively than Congress ever could. So, while it is problematic that online content moderation is a bit of a mess, the real problem is that we only have one U.S. Senator asking: Compared to what?